Let me start this off by saying that renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is absolutely possible, is very safe, and is 100% the most efficient way to get around the country. I will also say, though, that driving was definitely more intense than driving in the United States. You can totally do it – you just need to be prepared and know a few things ahead of time!
In this article, I’m going to go over everything we learned and experienced related to driving in Costa Rica, including information about driving, navigating, and parking, plus renting a car and getting rental car insurance (a big thing – don’t skip this section!).
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Your strategy for driving in Costa Rica is A. Be incredibly alert B. Use your GPS navigation always and C. Practice defensive driving (except for those times you actually need to be aggressive).
We also found that the Costa Rican roads were quite serpentine – winding back and forth between the hills, mountains, and jungles. It was like a constant “s” motion . So much, in fact, that it actually started making us nauseous!
The roads are mostly just 2 lanes and do not have a shoulder or sidewalks, yet people and animals (and sometimes even cyclists) regularly are walking alongside the road, right on the outside line.
For these reasons, you have to be very, very alert while driving. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t safe for the driver to look around at the scenery as they are driving.
Thankfully, most roads did have reflectors on the sides, though, which helped immensely in rainy and/or dark conditions.
We ended up upgrading to a 4-wheel drive vehicle at the rental center and were very happy that we had that as we went into the mountainous areas around La Fortuna and between La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio. If I was to do the trip again, I would, without question make sure to get 4-wheel drive.
Driving in Costa Rica at Night
We had read in several places before we left that said you should not drive in Costa Rica at night because it wasn’t safe. We kept thinking – really? You can’t drive at night?
I’m here to tell you you absolutely can drive in the dark! We drove at night many times and as long as you have GPS navigation going and are paying close attention and are aware of the conditions, you should be just fine. Just be hyperalert of people and animals on the side of the roads.
Overall, while you definitely had to pay close attention to the road, we never felt unsafe or in danger driving in Costa Rica.
But what about road conditions in Costa Rica? Here’s what to expect:
- Most roads were very nicely paved. However, there are some areas with unpaved roads. For example, we came across several kilometers of unpaved road on the way out to the Rio Celeste waterfall and again in the mountains between La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio.
- There weren’t a ton of pot holes, but when there were, they were pretty big. Also, in San Jose, there were a lot of uncovered man holes, so watch out!
- There were a lot of speedbumps. The speedbumps were mostly as you were entering a town and then throughout the town.
- There are quite a few bridges and most of the bridges are single lane. This means that you need to be paying attention as you approach and take turns with the opposing traffic crossing the bridge. Generally, one direction had “right-of-way” for the bridge and could just flow through, while the other had to yield and only cross if the way was clear. If you are the direction who has to yield, don’t be super timid when it is your turn. This, like merging in San Jose, is where a bit more assertiveness will come in handy – be ready to make your move. (But for reals, no one takes turns in San Jose. Fend for yourself!) When yielding, make sure to stop far enough back from the bridge to leave space for the oncoming traffic to get around you.
Navigating in Costa Rica
Navigating is extremely difficult while driving in Costa Rica because many streets don’t have names and/or street signs, and the addresses are literally names like “2 kilometers west of La Fortuna”.
You absolutely need to have GPS navigation going. We had the best success with having our GPS navigation up and giving directions, as well as having the front seat passenger watching the map and helping give directions on where to turn. We did find that the GPS worked very well, though (thankfully!).
We had two cars, and while it was pretty easy to stay together, it was helpful to have navigation in both. In one, my dad had an international data plan and just used his data to load up maps in real time. In the other, my brother didn’t have data turned on and instead downloaded the Google maps for the specific areas we were in ahead of time. By doing this, he was able to search the map areas without connection and still use navigation.
Road Signs to Know
- “Ceda” means yield and is everywhere. Sometimes you will see it on signs and sometimes it will be painted on the road.
- “Alto” means stop. Most of the Alto signs are red and octagonal like American stop signs, but occasionally you will see Alto painted on the road, and you will need to know this means to stop.
- Speed limits are typically 40 km/h in city and 80 km/h on freeway. While there are some variations, that is the standard.
- Painted yellow curbs are no parking zones. Speeding and parking tickets are expensive (at least $100) and the most common driving problem tourists have in Costa Rica.
Communicating Between Drivers
It is very common for drivers to communicate with their lights and their horn on the road in Costa Rica. Things like flashing lights to signal it’s ok to merge or honking as they pass to make you aware. Sometimes, in smaller areas, honks simply serve as a way to say ‘hello’.
Speaking of which, it is very common for cars to pass each other, even on areas that aren’t marked as passing zones and even when the gap is very small. Many times we all gasped as a car shot the teeniest gap. Motorcycles especially wove constantly through traffic.
We had a great experience with our rental car. There was a driver waiting for us at the airport to shuttle us to the nearby Avis car rental center – less than a 5 minute drive away. The employee at the counter spoke very good English and we were able to get our car quickly. We rented the “Nissan X-trail 4×4 or similar” and were happy with that decision.
We were very glad to have an SUV on the roads. We climbed so many hills, and the mountains were especially steep, that I was glad for the additional power and stability of the SUV.
Rental Car Insurance
Costa Rica requires you to have a lot of rental car insurance and the rental company will include that cost in your bill when you pick up your car. There are three types of rental insurance you need to have: third party liability, collision damage waiver, and loss/theft. These insurances can easily be more than the cost of the rental car itself, but thankfully you can bring this cost down.
The best way to do this is to use your travel credit card for rental car insurance. Almost every credit card with travel perks will include free rental car insurance as one of their perks (double check that your card includes this). This is extremely helpful, as usually your regular car insurance at home will not cover rental cars.
Be sure to book the rental car with that credit card. You will then need to get a certificate or letter from your credit card that shows that you have coverage and bring that with you to Costa Rica.
However, credit card insurance typically only provides two of the three required insurances: collision and loss/theft. They do not provide third party liability insurance, so you will have to purchase that… and it’s expensive. For reference, for our 10 day trip, we spent $150 on the rental car itself and another $244 on the third party liability insurance. (Read more about our Costa Rica budget here.)
Before we left for Costa Rica, we were told that the third party liability insurance would cost us $19/day. But, when we were at the Avis counter picking up the car, the guy told us it would be $25/day! We told him that it was supposed to be $19/day and he just said “ok”, and with no argument charged us that price.
Moral of the story – I think it’s definitely worth making sure you check on costs ahead of time and are prepared with the necessary letter from your credit card to cover the two insurances. Also, don’t be afraid to push back a little if a cost is quoted higher to you at the counter than beforehand.
Driver’s License Requirements
Coming from the United States, there was no requirement for a special driver’s license to rent or drive a car in Costa Rica. As long as you are over 25, your regular US driver’s license will be sufficient for renting a car in Costa Rica.
Our parking experience varied. At some places (such as La Fortuna waterfall, Los Lagos resort, and some restaurants), there are nice parking lots and they were free to use.
In other places, such as the Rio Celeste waterfall, there is a parking lot, but you have to pay a small fee to use it. At Manuel Antonio National Park you have to use one of the many, many independent paid lots as you approach the park. Parking for Manuel Antonio National Park was a whole different animal, really- read everything to know about visiting Manuel Antonio here.
In the town of La Fortuna, most restaurants and shops just have street parking and you just have to find an available spot, but it’s generally all free parking within the city area where the shops and restaurants are.
Other spots, such as at the rope swing or the Tabacon River or some beaches in the Manuel Antonio area, there is free parking along the side of the street.
However, there is also a parking attendant that will watch your car, and ostensibly make sure the cars stay safe. In La Fortuna, these attendants were nice and actually did help you know when it was clear to back in and out of your parking spot. The guy at the rope swing was particularly friendly and even pointed out a sloth in the trees above to us!
Tip about 2000 colones (3 dollars) per car to these guys.
My brother and sister-in-law went to Monteverde before I arrived in Costa Rica, and they said that Monteverde was a much quieter town, with no parking attendants, and parking was straightforward and easy.
Most of the time in Manuel Antonio the parking situation was sometimes a little more… aggressive. In one spot we parked we had some random guys come up and try to demand money for “watching” the car (they were just hanging out around it). We told them no and drove away.
Other Practical Information for Costa Rica
Where to Stay
In La Fortuna, we adored our stay at this gorgeous hot springs resort. It was an incredible value for the high quality stay we got! There are extensive, gorgeously landscaped grounds, a large, hot breakfast buffet (put the salsa Lizano on your eggs – trust me!), a couple of regular pools with seriously fast waterslides, 8+ hot springs, a wet bar, a perfect view of the volcano, and really nice rooms.
We loved starting off our day with a hearty breakfast and ending it hopping between the all the hot springs on the resort. I would stay there again in a heartbeat
In Manuel Antonio, I would highly recommend staying at this resort property where we felt like we were living in the middle of the rainforest. Although it is called a hotel, some of the units are more like bungalows – our unit was a detached little “apartment” set in the jungle – we had private outdoor space with plants and flowers, and a detached, outdoor covered eating patio with views to the sea.
The tag line of the resort is “there are still more monkeys than humans,” and I can confirm that that is definitely true! We saw monkeys climbing and swinging through the trees every morning, there were monkeys running across our roof, and we could hear howler monkeys out the window. It was super cool.
What to Eat
Between casados, salsa lizano, fresh fruit, and smoothies (my faves!), Costa Rica had some insanely delicious food! Read all about the foods I recommend and our favorite restaurants in La Fortuna here.
To Wrap Up…
Driving gives you ultimate flexibility and as long as you know what to watch out for, are very attentive, and have navigation, you should be fine driving in Costa Rica!
One last note is that the scenery along the countryside is super pretty! Everywhere you look there is lush greenery, tropical plants, lots of flowers and flowering bushes/trees. It was absolutely gorgeous!